Friday, January 23, 2009


Establishment of Food Plazas have become a star project of the Railway Board and lot of expectations are riding on this program. Only time will tell whether this is a correct approach to improve railway travels and the comforts of the traveling public. A plaza in Spanish language means either an open square or market place and in the US it is more a shopping center. Food plazas are intended to cater to the food needs of the public but what is not clear is in what way it is different from a food court or a food complex which already exists in many places serving a variety of foods to the customers who visit these facilities, just like any restaurant. Probably it differs from a restaurant because of the multi cuisine option and difference in ambiance.

There is an excellent case for establishing eateries in many towns and cities in the country supported by the civic authorities so that the run away inflationary trend in the prices of commonly consumed prepared food items does not deny low income group of population the small luxury of eating out, at least once in a way. Of course there are hundreds of way side eateries, road vendors, dhabhas, food kiosks, darshini type of self service food outlets in every urban area, frequenting them often poses enormous logistical and safety risks. Beside how can a civilized country allow its roads and pavements to be cluttered with eating places with practically no road to walk or drive for honest citizens. Feeble attempts periodically in shedding tears for these vendors do not carry conviction and the situation has not changed much during the last 3-4 decades. No doubt these micro enterprises do serve an admirable purpose in meeting the demands from a sizable segment of the urban population. With relatively lax overseeing of these establishments by the civic bodies, they can compromise on quality and safety putting the health of their customers to jeopardy. The solution to this civic problem is not regularization of these eating slums but find alternative option without sacrificing the interests of the consumers and the hawkers.

The once a week night markets in some of the south Asian countries like Malaysia, popularly called in the local language 'Pasar Malam', are organized in different parts of the city, blocking the roads for vehicular traffic, for the benefit of people residing there. This is a good concept but serves food only during 6 pm to 12 pm and the civic workers promptly clean up the place same night so that the roads are clear by next day morning. While this can be a workable option, what is required in the urban areas is self contained food complexes of a permanent nature with land mark features and recognizable brand equity for visitors as well as the locals to approach these places easily for good food at reasonable cost. Is this concept feasible in India? Why not?

Each city with a population of more than 5 lakh should have at least 4 food complexes in four corners of the city and each complex should be of the size with a minimum of a dozen eateries specialized in different cuisines. The facility to be designed by catering experts and civic authorities must have scientifically worked out facilities for cooking, serving, sitting, washing, WC, parking and short time entertainment. Some of them can be common facilities for which expenditure must be shared by the participating entrepreneurs. One can even think of providing limited residential facilities to the operators as well as visitors. Civic authorities must post a health officer in each of these food complexes to ensure customer confidence on the quality and safety of the foods served there. Initial investments will have to come from the State governments and /or the MFPI, New Delhi while upkeep, maintenance and innovation will the responsibility of the individual caterers who get the lease based on their experience and skill to make tasty foods. There must be price control and with public stakes in such ventures there may not be wild increases in the food costs as being seen in restaurants and hotels across the country. This project can even be dovetailed into a rehabilitation scheme for street vendors in the towns and cities.

With ring roads, inner and outer, becoming standard features in many urban areas, providing a peripheral road situated away from the town centers, conceiving and setting up such food complexes on strategic locations, are right steps to be considered by the Urban Development Ministries in the states as well as at the center and the common man will ever be grateful if they have access to good foods at affordable prices at these places.


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